Introversion and Leadership



Introverts are having an awakening right now.

There are several definitions of introversion are competing for dominance, and this skews the percentage of introverts between studies. However, we can say that we are a minority – most studies put us around 20-40% of the population. [Note that the popular Myers-Briggs is graded so that 50% of the population is “introverted.”] Recent research points toward a reliance on a different pathway in the brain from extroverts.

Anyone can look up the definition in the dictionary: “a person characterized by concern primarily with his or her own thoughts and feelings.” Well that’s useful.

The more interesting description is introverts have a lot going on in their heads and don’t require excessive external stimuli. Too much social interaction leave introverts drained, but it doesn’t mean they can’t handle it. In fact, most of us have spent our entire lives discovering ways to cope.

The best, concise definition I’ve found comes from Dr. Marti Laney’s The Introvert’s Advantage:

The strongest distinguishing characteristic of introverts is their energy source: Introverts draw energy from their internal world of ideas, emotions, and impressions. They are energy conservers.”

She explains why this matters:

They can be easily overstimulated by the external world, experiencing the uncomfortable feeling of ‘too much.’ This can feel like antsyness or torpor. In either case, they need to limit their social experiences so they don’t get drained.”

Introverts are most easily defined as those who seek solitude, to be alone. It’s not because we’re anti-social, it’s because we need to. It’s different from shyness or being withdrawn or pathology.

What’s even more interesting is the growing body of research that provides a basis for the introversion-extraversion divide. One study found a correlation between blood flow to different parts of the brain in extraverts and introverts. Another study of twins found a genetic basis for the temperament.

The introvert brain has a higher level of internal activity and thinking than the extroverted brain. It is dominated by the long, slow acetylcholine pathway. Acetylcholine also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system that controls certain body functions and influences how introverts behave.”


The Acetylcholine Pathway is literally longer. You can see the path it takes through the brain in these scans from The Introvert Advantage:

[Hat tip: Musings on Mormonism]


The different pathways in the brain have shape the external behaviors of both extraverts and introverts.


Outward signs — introverts may:

  • Shun crowds and parties
  • Think before they speak and look before they leap
  • Lose sight of what others are doing
  • Have muted facial expressions
  • Get agitated without downtime
  • Focus eye contact away when speaking, and then hold eye contact when listening
  • Surprise others with their wealth of information
  • Appear glazed, dazed, or zoned out when stressed, tired, or in groups
  • Can forget things they know very well—might stumble around when explaining their job or temporarily forget a word they want to use
  • May think they told you something, but had only thought about telling you it
  • Observe before joining the fun
  • Have a strong sense of personal space and demand for privacy


So… why does any of this matter?

In understanding introversion, you can make informed choices about introverts. Even if you’re not an introvert yourself, we exist in your family and in your workplace. Knowing about us raises your emotional intelligence.

If you are an introvert, then you can make choices that play to your strengths and meet your unique requirements.


Introversion & Leadership

Contrary to what you may have heard introverts are capable and effective leaders. Extraverts can be their own worst enemies. However, we operate under our own dynamic – balancing our own requirement for solitude with jobs of frequent interaction.

All of this relies on using introverted tendencies rather than overcoming them.

If we want to stay in the game, we can’t change the cards we’re dealt. We can change how we play them.

When I started understanding what it meant to be an introvert, I understood what I needed to manage. An added bonus, I was able to anticipate the needs of extraverted peers and coworkers.

Below are a list of strengths introverts possess followed by strategies and tactics to make use of our nature.


1. Introverts possess strong observational skills. With our sensitivity to stimulation, we have to be. It clues us in to details that others miss. Don’t forget to listen; it’s your biggest advantage.

You’ll benefit from the perspectives of others, spot trends, and compare them to your own observations – which get you closer to your goals. The fact that your brain is constantly processing your surroundings, updating & comparing it to your memory has its own advantages.

2. Introverts think deeply. We don’t have a choice. The acetylcholine pathway routes through regions responsible for speech, long-term memory, and planning. It means we speak and react slower, but process more information any given time. We think before we act. That extra time allows us to cut to the root of an issue. It means we spot problems before they happen, and have an edge in finding elegant solutions to even the most complex problems.

Granted, this isn’t ideal for all leadership situations. It means that outside of acting in the moment, extraverts will always be at the disadvantage.

3. Introverts are focused. When every interaction is a drain, you get good at prioritizing. Introverts are notorious for their ability to avoid distractions. Combined with a natural tendency to seek depth (rather than breadth) of information, we collect skills and master subjects. We also gravitate towards substance over style. Introverts are where fluff goes to die.

4. Introverts take deliberate action. We’re masters of calculated risks and enduring challenges. Introverts tend to be selective in their efforts, but once convinced on the best course of action, they stay the course. Our reserved demeanor gives the appearance of calm in stressful situations, an appealing trait to others (We may in fact be stressing, but we prefer not to exacerbate problems by letting the world know).

[Inspired by The Mojo Company]


Below are five strategies that will enable you to leverage the strengths of your personality. Remember — you are not an extravert, so don’t try to be one.

  1. Be a better introvert. It’s Sophia Dembling’s “Introversion 3.0.” Mimicking extraverts means that you’re competing on a compromised footing. This is the single, hardest lesson to learn. Pretend to be an extravert and you’ll come off as an inauthentic knock-off, and be drained to boot. Extraversion isn’t the answer. You may not be able to choose your level of introversion, but you can make intelligent choices on how you handle it. We are different, and that’s a good thing.
    • Condition others to your silence. Extraverts that are used to you “acting extraverted” have a different baseline for your behavior. That means that if you’re having a rough day and looking to escape, they’re likely to attempt to cheer you up and draw you “out of your shell” because they don’t grasp what’s going on. Mystique is sexy. Make it work for you. You don’t have to answer every question, or hog the spotlight. You are different, so be different. When you successfully pull this off, others will allow you small moments to yourself even if you can’t get away physically.
    • Give yourself space. Recognize your need for downtime. Make it a priority. Turn off the radio, close your browser, and put your cellphone in your pocket. Meditate if you have to. We’re talking about real downtime. It’s in those quite moments that we get ahead. Use them to order your thoughts, de-stress, and plan ahead.
    • Selective masking. “Playing extravert” is like a jet’s afterburners for us. It’s a short-term solution, not a long-term proposition. It’s a useful skill under the right circumstances: giving a presentation or establishing first impressions. Use it judiciously.
  1. Stop explaining introversion. No, really: Stop sending out the Jonathan Rauch article. “Introversion” is a term fraught with misunderstanding. Wait until someone compliments you on one of your strengths – that’s the time to educate them.
  2. Be engaged. Learning about introversion means, by extension, you’re learning about extraverts too. Extraverts perceive some introverts as self-absorbed space cadets. You can influence their perception of you.
    • Give others all your attention. When someone approaches your desk or engages you in conversation, give that person your full attention. No typing, texting, or daydreaming — that person deserves your unfiltered focus. Keep the conversation short, on-track, and your priority for that moment in time. If you don’t have the time at that exact moment, make it clear that you’ll follow up with them with your full attention.
    • Pick your downtime. If you know you’re walking into a big meeting or social hour, allot yourself time before and after to recharge alone. This isn’t always possible, but a boost when you make an effort.
    • Prepare. As an introvert, you need more time to process, sort, and internalize information. You will also need more time to decide on a course of action. Why not give yourself the advantage by using downtime to get ahead? Review information, brainstorm multiple plans, and know what you need to ask before your next meeting even starts. That way, you’re the one driving the meeting and not the one playing catch up.
    • [Bonus] Test out Olivia Fox Cabane’s Three “Instant Charisma” Boosts: Lower the intonation of your voice at the end of your sentences, reduce how quickly and how often you nod, and pause for two full seconds before you speak.
  3. Build relationships. This might be scary for most introverts, but relationships (as draining as they might be) are the backbone of any team or office. You have every incentive to build strong relationships. This sounds daunting at first. Strengthening becomes easier when you realize that building a team allows you to compensate for shortcomings of any individual (including your own). It takes one person at a time. Besides, we thrive in one-on-one interaction.
    • Pet extraverts. Keeping an extravert close to make connections for us and handle random interactions is an old survival trick for parties. The same can be done in the workforce. Teaming up with an extraverted partner enables both of you to excel. Extraverts can spend hours on red herrings and are easily frustrated when progress slows. You’re different. Pairing with you means they waste less time on trivialities and wrapping up loose ends. They’re your social screen and you keep the focus on the bigger picture.
    • Outsider’s perspective. Introverts no that they’re not the majority. It’s something they’ve been reminded of for most of their lives. This is a gift. Introverts can look past distractions to determine the value and strengths of a team member.
  • Use small talk as a tool. Small talk, the bane of introverts’ existence, isn’t something we’re naturals at. However, it’s a skill that is worth developing. Small talk can be used to put someone at ease, get a feel for their personality, or detect shifts in mood that may suggest a problem. It’s a tool; making the effort opens new doors. Over time, you’ll have a database in your head of past interaction to reference, you’ll have more clues to spot trends, and it will get easier (draining you less).
  • Build teams. Just as you might pick an extravert to be your right-hand man, you can bring together teams that are well-rounded or have the skills and traits specific to the job. What might be an island of misfit toys to others, is in fact a crafted team that’s uniquely equipped to finish the job. Knowing your own shortcoming, on the personal or organizational levels, allows you to bring onboard (or get rid of) people who can fill those gaps. First, you’ve got to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, and those of others.
  1. Improve tolerance levels. As I’ve said before, leadership is a skill. When you’re starting out, everything takes too much effort. Over time, you’ll get more efficient. You’ll know your own endurance, and can plan around it. Interactions will drain you less. The drain won’t go away any more than gravity, but like hitting the weights, it’ll get easier with time. Below are three of what I call “Social Calibrations” (SoCals) that are interesting experiments in themselves, but also help overcome the anxieties of social interactions:
      1. The Staring Contest: For one day, you’re going to keep and hold eye contact with everyone you meet. Yes, you can blink. No, you can’t look away. You’re going to be uncomfortable, but you’ll get through it. And that’s the whole point – overcoming your anxiety. Keep a soft focus, a warm expression on your face. Be playful, inquisitive, or stern (just not creepy). When you’re doing this, pay attention to people’s reactions and your own. You’ll learn to spot cues of discomfort in others that you can allay or leverage depending on the situation. You also build an understanding of your own emotions and how to handle them.
      2. World’s Biggest Gorilla: On another day, you’re going to own your personal space like an Alpha. Your goal is to get others to move out of your way. You can be polite, patient, or ruthless, but you won’t budge. In your mind, you’re an 800-lb gorilla. You portray an air of dominance, take up more room than you need, and you look others directly in the eye. Wherever you are, that’s your space. Keeping experimenting – change your posture, your stride, your expressions. Again, watch the reaction of others. Do they treat you differently? How do you feel during the experiment? Is this something you could use to give yourself space? [Hat tip: The Charisma Myth]

Let me know what you think!